All opinions expressed in these episodes are personal and do not reflect the opinions of the organizations for which our guests work.
Marianne Belotti is no stranger to government IT. In her years of public service, she’s tackled some of the most overloaded, neglected, foundational systems on which government runs. And in her book Kill It With Fire, she delivers a readable, no-holds-barred overview of just why such systems are so hard to deal with.
Ahead of the first FWD50 Executive Book Club and thanks to the support of our partners at IBM, I had a chance to sit down with Marianne and ask her more about the many frameworks and stories she shares within the text—which should be required reading for anyone working on complex systems in technical environments.
First off, Marianne isn’t actually advocating a fiery death for old tech. Quite the contrary—she points out early on that the reason that these systems persist is that they’re being used. Just because they’re old doesn’t mean they need to be modernized. The title—and accompanying picture of a dumpster fire—are a broadside at the ways in which we approach technology systems as a whole.
What’s immediately apparent is that humans are the issue. Whether that’s mis-set expectations, piling unattainable goals on new projects before they’re even started, or thinking that one can simply walk away from IT once it’s built, most issues with public sector IT stem from the culture and beliefs of those delivering it.
Marianne offers a hopeful counter to this: Agency. She returns time and again to the idea that confidence breeds success—rather than the reverse; that consistently delivering modest improvements is far better than holding out for one heroic Hail Mary; and that measurements like “how long until a new employee can change some code?” are essential in untangling years of overgrowth from systems that have lain fallow far too long.
The book’s full of great lessons and evocative terms—Monoliths, Murder Boards, Code Yellow—but it never descends into jargon, making it accessible (and all too familiar) to people who’ve worked in IT. In the early years of my product management career, I worked on systems that connected PCs to mainframes, and some of the stories gave me flashbacks.
Ultimately, IT is more like farming than manufacturing. In a factory model, we ship products and hope never to hear from them again. That’s not IT. Technology stacks are living, breathing things, and they need to be cared for, watered and weeded, if they are to flourish.
Thanks to our partners at IBM, we were able to bring Marianne to our first Executive Book Club, and record this conversation with her. Enjoy!